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Judgment and Discernment


Matthew 7:1

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.

This may be one of the most quoted scriptures by people who don’t otherwise believe or read the Bible. We have heard that phrase uttered numerous times in our lives, “Don’t judge me.” We may have expressed that thought ourselves. Anyone who does not want to face the criticism of others will use that sentiment as a shield.

But as human beings, we do it; we judge. Of course there is a broad context to judging, but for today we will use Biblical and personal meanings. To judge is to form an opinion, to draw a conclusion. Jesus tells us in our Bible verse not to judge, but then in the next verse says, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged.” He is saying that we will judge, despite our best efforts.

In John7:24 Christ tells us, “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.” So, there is a correct and incorrect way of judging, and how we judge will be how we are judged by others. The correct way to judge is not based upon mere appearances and certainly not on their motives. We cannot know what motivates a person’s actions or words. We cannot know the entirety that caused a person to do what they did.

I heard a story about someone walking through a forest and coming upon a small dog. As they approached the dog to pet it, the dog bared its teeth and tried to bite the person. That person immediately became fearful and then angry at the dog. But then a breeze blew through the forest and moved some leaves to reveal that the dog’s leg was caught in a trap. Immediately the person understood the dog’s situation and was overcome with compassion for the animal.

As we go through life, it is nearly impossible to see the entire picture behind someone’s choices of behavior. Instead of researching and digging deep we tend to make snap assessments and judgements based upon inaccurate or insufficient evidence. Often our conclusions about something or someone are based upon our own limited experiences, pride, and self-glorification. We compare ourselves to others and find ways to feel superior. Jesus condemns this incorrect way of judging.

However, there is a way to judge rightly and that is through the virtue of discernment. Discernment is the ability to see and instinctually recognize subtle differences. It allows our knowledge to penetrate the mental cloudiness and cut through layers of confusion and ambiguity to perceive distinctions accurately. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit and is motivated by humility and love. Through discernment we develop wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of spiritual truth. We can compare and contrast and come to God-based conclusions.

Gaining discernment or sound judgment involves trusting in God, seeking His will, and not relying on our own opinions. Proverbs 3:5–6 teaches, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

We cannot trust our own understanding because our thinking has limitations. Our mind is subject to systematic errors, or cognitive biases, that occur when we are processing and interpreting information from the world around us and these errors affect the decisions and judgments that we make.

There have been 188 cognitive biases uncovered and a common one is called “The Illusory Truth Effect.” This is a glitch in our human thinking that equates repetition with truth. Marketers and politicians use this weakness to full advantage. We are being manipulated without our even knowing it. You only use 10 percent of your brain. Eating carrots improves your eyesight. Vitamin C cures the common cold. Crime in the United States is at an all-time high. None of those things are true. But we have heard them so often they become true in our minds.

Discernment sets us on the path of Christ, and we distinguish ourselves from this world by changing our lives through accurate thinking. Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Through discernment we cut through the mental chaos and confusion to the truth.

Although judgment is a natural instinct, wrongful judgment can be harmful to others. To avoid harmful judgments, we must be aware of our thoughts and responses. We can learn to pause before we react from our ego. If we try to rephrase our hurtful inner thoughts to ones that are neutral, we can withhold harm. Through discernment, we recognize that it is the behavior that we find offensive and not the person.

Everyone is on their own journey and what motivates their decisions is not visible to us, nor is it our business. But we can know that everyone is struggling, everyone is under pressure, just as we are. They love their families, just as we do. They want to be happy, just as we do. They make mistakes, just like we do.

Everyone is trying to solve a problem, face a challenge, and are experiencing a difficult timetable as we are. We each have our own lessons and are following our own path. Just because our paths are different does not make them wrong, inferior, or lost. When we put ourselves in their position, we can understand and be less ‘judgey.”

Sometimes we subconsciously judge others for doing things that we ourselves do or have done. I’ve heard it said that reformed cigarette smokers are judgmental of smokers. But do we remember how hard it was for us to quit? But we judge them callously and think, “Well, I did it, I quit. Why can’t they?” Our judgment creates animosity and instead of developing a friend, an ally in life, we create an enemy and appear ignorant and without compassion. None of this is true or necessary.

We are all different, with different skills, gifts, and capacities. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This is why Jesus whispers to me, “Judge not, Patrick. Be sensitive to the abilities of others and give them a break.” The truth is, no one wakes up thinking, “How many people can I tick off today?” Most of us are doing the best we can based upon our cultural and spiritual development, and it is through discernment that we develop most quickly.

Our judgment of someone actually tells the world nothing more about them, but it sure tells the world something about us. If we are feeling good about our body, we are less inclined to make fun of other people’s bodies. If we feel good about our own relationships and how we get along with people, we aren’t as interested in judging others. Whatever we are judging others about, perhaps it is time to self-examine in that area.

And if we can self-examine honestly, we will discern the reasons for our judgmental attitudes. By developing discernment, we can become healthier physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We can discern the productive and unproductive in others without judgment and choose not to follow their example.

Luke 6:38 shares this truth: Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This measurement principle applies to all things that we give, and a pattern is revealed: the merciful receive mercy. It is the forgiving who are forgiven. It is the nonjudgmental who are not judged.

I pray that we understand that God sees us as perfect, right where we are, on our path, at our level of development, so there is no reason to judge ourselves or others. We are still “in the process” of growing into all that God wants us to be.

We have our own challenges, but as a Child of God we inherit goodness, strength, courage, hope, humility, discernment, and above all else – Love. Love is the great reflector through which we experience the world. When we judge others, we judge ourselves. When we condemn others, we condemn ourselves. When we compare ourselves, our soul is diminished. When we love others, we are exalted and wrapped in God’s loving arms.


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